If we carry on letting populists kick at an open door, one day we will wake up and it won’t be Alex Salmond or Nigel Farage gesticulating on our television screens, but something far worse.
If we carry on letting populists kick at an open door, one day we will wake up and it won’t be Alex Salmond or Nigel Farage gesticulating on our television screens, but something far worse
In hindsight the Better Together campaign needn’t have panicked. In the end the so-called ‘silent majority’ rejected nationalism by a similar margin to the polling which produced so much complacency on the No side to begin with.
Without wishing to sound conceited, I have been predicting a result of this magnitude for several days now. The reason being that the number of undecided prospective voters seemed, right up until the final hour, suspiciously high. If you have ever canvassed for a political party you will understand what I mean. Don’t know usually means don’t want to tell you.
In England this tends to mean an underestimation of the Conservative vote; in Scotland it’s been No voters who’ve kept quiet, presumably because of the intimidation that has been directed at vocal No supporters in certain areas. Telling pollsters that you are ‘not sure’ is after all a small price to pay when set against having a brick put through your window.
On the positive side, the scale of Better Together’s victory should put a lid on some of the nastier things we’ve seen over recent months. First Minister Alex Salmond has also conceded defeat gracefully, which isn’t a given in these things (when Quebec voted not to become independent in 1995, Jacques Parizeau, then-Quebec’s premier, blamed ‘money and ethnic votes’).
Now that it’s over the rapidly developing cliché will have it that, despite the United Kingdom staying together, the referendum has sent a ‘clear message’ to Westminster. Indeed, Alex Salmond has during his campaign used ‘Westminster’ interchangeably as code for England. Nigel Farage did the same in the run up to May’s European elections, except in Farage’s case ‘Westminster’ denoted immigrant-loving, latte-sipping metropolitan types who never leave north London.
Such is the public’s distain for the so-called ‘political class’ that running on an anti-politics ticket is now seen as absolutely de rigueur for any outsider hoping to make electoral inroads.
And there is substance behind this anti-politics mood. The lies over Iraq, the expenses scandal and the economic crisis have all contrived to foster an intense mood of distrust in, not just politicians, but the so-called ‘establishment’ itself. This explains why conspiracy theories now abound over everything from the shooting down of MH17 to ‘bias’ at the BBC. One consequence of this is a public appetite for blustering ‘man of the people’ populists in the mould of a Farage or Salmond who claim to ‘tell it like it really is’.
Despite almost half of Scotland voting to secede from the hated Westminster, however, it would be a brave person who bets against more of the same from our politicians. There is very little evidence to suggest that the so-called political class wants to change, and there is certainly no appetite for pushing democracy beyond its quiescent 19th century confines. Start talking about democracy in the workplace or the abolition of the monarchy and you will soon grasp what I mean.
Self-interest plays a large part in this. Politics in Britain is once again the preserve of the upper middle classes. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done some kind of manual or clerical work before they entered parliament. By 2010, that figure had fallen to just 9 per cent.
Changes in the labour market will only account for some of that change. This is apparent when you look at other data. A whopping 91 per cent of the 2010 intake of MPs were university graduates and 35 per cent were privately-educated. This is a rise on previous elections and, in the case of the latter, compares to just 7 per cent of the school age population as a whole. No wonder people outside of the bubble feel a sense of alienation.
Breaking up the United Kingdom and replacing one state with two smaller but equally ‘big’ states was never going to be the panacea it was made out to be by the Yes campaign. Had things gone the other way, in a few years’ time Alex Salmond would have been ‘the establishment’ and there would have been a thriving literature on the left about how Scotland was ‘betrayed’ and ‘sold down the river’ by the Yes camp.
It will be said in the next few days that politicians must ‘reflect’ on today’s result. They won’t of course, but without some kind of shake up the same disenfranchisement which has reared its head in Scotland in recent weeks – and which we witnessed in England back in May – will once again stick its head above the parapet and thumb its nose at the gilded Westminster village.
The danger, if we carry on letting populists kick at this open door, is that one day we will wake up and it won’t be Alex Salmond or Nigel Farage gesticulating on our television screens, but something far worse. Listening exercises are no longer enough. If we have learnt anything from the Scottish independence referendum it should be that change really has to mean something this time.
This piece was also published at The IndependentLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.